2016 - THE EDGE OF THE EXPANSE
Demi-Fiend tripped over a corpse.
This wasn’t an uncommon thing. When you’re waging an eternal war against the immortal Great Will, corpses tend to feature strongly in any given landscape. World by world, reality by reality, he was carving a slow and steady path to the final demise of the true enemy, and that path was built on the bones and bodies of humans, demons, angels, and fucking whatever in between. Tripping over a corpse in the space between worlds wasn’t really all that weird.
What was weird was that the corpse groaned - rendering it a not-corpse - and that it was human.
Demi-Fiend paused to consider the human. He looked young; pallid and very much on death’s door. His soul was a stubborn little flicker though, fighting against the gentle pulls of the Expanse leeching his spirit dry. This human was very far from home, in a land entirely hostile to them and starving for the dwindling vitality within them. Human souls were a rare delicacy, this deep in the Expanse.
His curiosity was piqued.
Demi-Fiend crouched down and observed the human up close. The human was dressed oddly: a striped jumpsuit with a mean looking, beaked helmet, something akin to a Demonica but without the militaristic bells and whistles. No weapons, no identification, no gauntlet with a demon summoning capabilities...
Demi-Fiend reached out, gently prising the visor off the helm and curling his fingers around the human’s wicked looking chin guard. He tilted their head from side to side, studying their pale visage.
There wasn’t much resistance. The human really had one foot in the grave - still stubbornly clinging on despite there being no hope for survival. So much grit and determination, and for what? A slow, agonisingly pointless death. It’d be a waste to lose that, just because the human had the poor luck of tumbling into this forgotten crack within the Expanse.
Was this how Lucifer had felt, all those millennia ago? The thought of it made Demi-Fiend snort.
“Hey,” he commanded, violently shaking the human by their stupid looking chin guard, “Wake up.”
The human woke up in sluggish stages, his limbs twitching and his eyes fluttering open. They were beautiful eyes, shifting from amber to crimson in the undulating light of the Expanse. Demi-Fiend could glimpse tempered madness in there, reminding him viscerally of Chiaki, a heart so consumed with a hunger for strength and independence, that…
The human jerked in his grip, voice cracking as he rasped; “ Loki -”
Ah, the heart swelled , and from it burst a- what? A demon? A god? Demi-Fiend peered up at the strange entity looming over them both, fading at the edges, already losing substance. The human was too far gone to sustain this odd projection.
What a power - to claw together the darkness in your heart and manifest it as a monster with claws and fangs and malice. Demi-Fiend memorised the brief flicker of that savage heart - Loki, was it? - the thin limbs, fiery hooves, red fanged smile and the long braids. Beautiful. Demi-Fiend wanted it, a familiar flash of greed rising within him as the entity crumbled away into nothingness.
“You’re too weak for that,” Demi-Fiend informed the human, who was too busy gasping out curses; all bluster to cover the fear in his eyes. Understandable. Animal instinct became overwhelming when you were this vulnerable.
“Who… the fuck …” the human coughed out. His eyes were unfocused, his breathing ragged. Death was imminent.
“It’s rare to see a human as stubborn as you,” Demi-Fiend said, “Most of them die when they fall this deep.”
The human bared his teeth like a feral dog, and those eyes focused on him, blazing red. Definitely a Chiaki; “I- won’t , just, die.”
“It’s inevitable at this point,” Demi-Fiend told him honestly, “You haven’t got long left.”
The human snarled at him, defiant and furious, even as his breaths audibly wheezed and scraped his lungs. Demi-Fiend met that maddened glare head on with a tiny little smile, and knew exactly what he was going to do.
It’d be a waste to leave the human here to rot.
Demi-Fiend will give him a gift, much like Lucifer did to him all those lifetimes ago. What the human did with this gift was up to him, and if he died, then, oh well, he died.
But if he lived… well, it’ll be interesting to see where the human’s tempered madness led him. Back to his world? Maybe he’d get lost and end up in Amala, scrapping with Lucifer’s minions. Or perhaps he’ll follow the natural migration of the demons towards the Great Will, fighting and dying as any bog standard foot soldier in Demi-Fiend’s endless war. Or maybe he’ll become like him, a prowling Godslayer that haunted the Creator God’s shadow like a relentless Grim...
Whatever became of him, it would be fun to watch.
“You know what, you caught me in a good mood,” Demi-Fiend said, “I’m going to help you.”
The human did not look reassured. Good. He knew there was a catch.
“You might thank me for it, or curse me, I don’t care,” Demi-Fiend said, and he tapped into his internal inventory - a minor pocket dimension where he stored all of the crap he’d accumulated over the last few lifetimes.
He was feeling generous, and this human was going to need a bit of a handicap, so he allowed Kailash to wriggle from his internal inventory and into his hand. The Magatama uncurled, its serrated pincer jaws opening wide and barbed tentacles wriggling, the parasite sensing warm, living meat nearby.
Demi-Field dangled the writhing parasite from between the claws of his forefinger and thumb, just above the human’s face.
How strange. He actually felt a little bad about what was going to happen. The symbiosis between human and magatama was always so unpleasant…
(no, it was agony, violating and nauseating and inescapable, to feel the writhe of the parasite gnawing into your brain stem and transforming you down to the molecular level, where all you can do is scream and SCREAM AND SCREAM-)
Demi-Fiend blinked, gently smothering the remnants of Naoki inside of him. The human gazed up at him and the starving parasite in open terror.
“This will hurt,” he told the human, “But if you endure it, you’ll live.”
And then he dropped the demonic parasite onto the human’s face. Somehow, the human found enough air in his failing lungs to scream , to howl, to cry, almost drowning out the wet, crunching noise of the magatama burrowing through his eye and into grey matter, seeking out the brain stem.
Demi-Fiend kindly held his head still until the curse had hooked its claws into the human’s heart and stripped it away.
FIVE YEARS LATER...
“Three, two, one… happy new year!”
Akira sighed quietly at the enthusiastic cheers that filled the Counter-Demon Force’s briefing room. The night shift was making the most of the lax atmosphere the late hour brought, one of the monitors playing a recording of one of Tokyo’s old fireworks displays. Party poppers were set off, a contraband bottle of champagne was uncorked and poured, and a new year was ushered in with high hopes - Akira envied their optimism.
“Hey, Akira,” one of night shift turned to him, a young technician called Yoichi, and held up the bottle of champagne, “You want some? C’mon, loosen up a little! You’ve been scowling at your terminal all night.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” Akira said, “I don’t like drinking on the job.”
“It’s New Year’s!” Another night shift technician, Amaya, cajoled, “You can ease up a little on New Year’s!”
Akira grunted, and with a few sighs and grumbled, Yoichi and Amaya left him to it. The night shift was mostly a skeleton crew, so it was only three technicians, a supervisor, and Akira himself who occupied the briefing room. His lack of desire to socialise was therefore very apparent.
another year already, huh? Akira thought to himself, clicking through the data the day shift had compiled for him to process, that means it’s been five years since...
His gaze dipped a little from the monitor, his mouth twisting slightly.
“Hey,” a firm hand clasped his shoulder, almost sending Akira leaping out of his seat from surprise, “C’mon, take a break, Akira. That’s an order from your supervisor.”
“Kazuki,” Akira mock-whined, but he let his supervisor pull him away from the monitor and into the small group. They had repurposed the briefing room as a table, a few paper plates of party snacks and bottles of non-alcoholic drinks lined up. It seemed Kazuki was only tolerating the one glass of champagne for the night shift.
“Here’s to hoping the new year will bring us less demons,” the third technician, Dai, grumbled, “Or at least a better way to deal with them.”
“Can we not talk about demons tonight of all nights?” Amaya groaned, swirling her champagne carelessly. Amaya reminded Akira considerably of Ann - blond, blue-eyed, a little careless with her words. Except while Ann was in America, posing for advertisements on billboards and TV, Amaya was more the sort to challenge Kazuki to arm-wrestling matches or squat races. A real gym bunny, that one.
“What else are we going to talk about?” Yoichi drawled sarcastically, “That time you shorted out the lavatory’s door and locked yourself in there for three hours?”
Where Amaya was buff and wanted everyone to know it, Yoichi lived up to the stereotype of ‘gangly nerd’. He had bottle-eyed glasses that put Akira’s frames to shame, with an unfortunate bowl cut and a noodle-like body that even Futaba could take in a fight. If Akira hadn’t already known his age, he would’ve thought him still in middle school, he was that baby-faced.
“Didn’t the toilet overflow too?” Dai added slyly. He, compared to his fellow technicians, was mundane to the point of being weaponised. He was skilled at fading into the background, limboing beneath unsavoury taskings and using his lack of presence as an excuse to slack off. Akira always had to remind himself to keep an eye out for him to make sure he did his job.
“Hey! You guys promised to never talk about that!” Amaya barked, squaring up to the two sniggering guys, “You want me to put you in the infirmary!?”
“Guys,” Kazuki scolded gently, “Don’t.”
The technicians settled with low grumbles.
And last but not least: Kazuki. The supervisor of the night shift. Akira actually didn’t know much about him, except that he had links to some group called the Shadow Ops. Calm, soft-spoken, and with ‘government stooge’ stamped all over him, Akira made sure to keep his mouth shut and his head down around him. Not that he distrusted Kazuki - on the contrary, the guy had saved his life more than a few times in demon skirmishes, but, still… Akira’s instincts niggled, and he trusted his instincts more.
It was a motley group to be sure, but they were a group Akira had been stuck with for almost a year now. They weren’t the Phantom Thieves, though, and Akira felt another pang of longing shoot through him, a wistfulness for a simpler time.
They all went their separate ways not long after the Metaverse was destroyed, and it wasn’t long after that when the Pit of Naraku yawned open in Tokyo Bay - as well as other locations all over the globe. And from those Pits came demons, irrevocably changing everything…
“Hey, Akira,” Yoichi said, drawing him from his thoughts, “You’ve been really quiet tonight. I mean, more so than usual.”
“Is New Years not a good day for you?” Amaya asked sympathetically, “Like, missing someone or…?”
“Amaya,” Dai muttered into his drink.
“Oh, yeah, I guess,” Akira shrugged carelessly, snagging one of the paper plates. It was heavy with party sausages, “I mean, I usually spend it with Futaba and Sojiro, so.”
“Ah, Futaba,” Yoichi sighed, “Now there’s a girl after my heart…”
“She’s way out of your league,” Dai said flatly, pointing his drink at the bespectacled man, “And she’s busy with way more important things than fending off the clumsy advances from a supernerd like you, like tweaking the demon summoning app so it hopefully stops doing those stupid fusion accidents-”
“I’ve never had a fusion accident,” Amaya said sweetly, “Maybe you’re just using the app wrong.”
“How can you use it wrong? It’s literally idiot proof!”
“Yet you still fuck it up, eh? Hahah!”
Akira sighed when the three technicians launched into a friendly squabble, catching Kazuki’s eyes. The supervisor was giving him a curious look.
“Futaba’s probably still working in the terminal room,” Kazuki said when Akira made an inquiring noise at him, “I’ll be willing to let you wander over and spend some time with her for a bit.”
“That’s okay. We’ll catch up tomorrow or something,” Akira said easily, “Besides, knowing our luck, something’ll happen while I’m gone.”
Kazuki laughed quietly at that, “Oh, no doubt about that. It’s one of the laws of the universe.”
They returned to their respective posts not long after that, lethargic and relaxed from the glass of champagne and festive mood. Akira eased into his seat, idly scrolling through the reports for anything of note. Yesterday the Pit of Naraku in Tokyo Bay had been blessedly quiet, with only the occasional report of a demon sighting in the surrounding wards. Nothing new or exciting.
Akira’s mind wandered, as it always did during this monotonous work. He couldn’t help but wonder how his life would’ve been, if the Pits of Naraku hadn’t ruptured through the earth and spewed demons out into the world en masse, where everyone else would be. A handful of the Phantom Thieves had joined the Counter-Demon Force, or CDF for short, Makoto was in the SDF, Ann was in America as an agent, with her public persona that of a model, Haru had marshalled Okumura Foods into a company more focused on sustainable farming and hydroponics in case the worst happened…
Akira turned away from the reports, and drew up the security monitors of various demon hotspots around Tokyo. Minato and Shibuya had the majority of them, and large swathes of the wards were in ruins, blocked off and deemed No Man’s Land from where the demons had staked a permanent claim. When viewed from a map, it looked as if the demons were trying to expand their territory from the Pit of Naraku. Koto had been lost in the first year - it wasn’t even counted as a Tokyo ward anymore.
“In the last twelve months, we’ve lost more than we’ve gained,” Akira muttered into his hand, his cheek resting on an upturned palm as he watched a few of the live feeds. There was one surviving camera in Shibuya, near the train station. So weird to think that only five years ago he was diving into Mementos from there. It felt like a lifetime ago - or like it happened to a different person, in a different world.
Absently, Akira’s hand drifted to the inside pocket of his Demonica, where Akechi’s glove rested close to his heart.
He couldn’t help but wonder, if Akechi was out there somewhere - surviving, maybe? Akira could easily imagine him running roughshod over any demons foolish enough to challenge him. Maybe he was like those Ring of Gaea cultists and was living Shibuya or Minato, eking out a violent existence alongside the demonic invaders. Anything to avoid becoming leashed to someone else, even if it was an organisation like the CDF: dedicated to the long-term survival of mankind no matter the cost.
really dodged a tight leash there, akechi, Akira thought wryly, i hope you’re free and happy, wherever you are.
Because the alternative - to think, to believe, that Akechi was really-
An alert pinged through his terminal. Akira snapped to attention, glancing down at his Demonica gauntlet that was also pinging the same alert.
“Shit,” he grumbled, “Now?”
“Hop to it, Akira,” Kazuki called from his own terminal, “We’ll support you from here, as always.”
“We’ll be with you in spirit!” Yoichi added, his voice thick with wry humour.
“I’m sure your moral support will save me from a demon trying to beat me with my own spine, thanks,” Akira said flatly, but he rose from his seat and picked up his Demonica helmet set aside next to his terminal, stifling an agitated sigh. New Years and he had to deal with a demon attack all by himself. Great.
“Shame they don’t send you out in pairs anymore,” Amaya murmured worriedly as he started for the doors, “Are we really that stretched for manpower…?”
Akira didn’t reply. Everyone knew the answer to that.
It was strange to see Tokyo so dark.
The demon shifted their weight silently atop of a half-crumbled roof, their eyes catching the ambient light like a cat’s, scanning the street below. The tarmac from the road was cracked and littered with debris, the burned out chassis of cars piled up as a makeshift barricade. It looked like something out of a film, and not the shining metropolis that was Tokyo, that the figure remembered…
A flutter of wings. The demon looked up - and flinched, quickly scurrying back into the shadows with a feline grace, out of sight and taut with anticipation.
Above them, angels were circling.
“The demons have come this far, have they?” One of the angels spoke, their voice like a thousand, thousand knives against the demon's eardrums. They had to grit their teeth, dig their claws into their thighs to resist the urge to flinch. Angelic voices grated, agonisingly, stirring the parts of the demon that still retained humanity, repulsing the parts that hadn't.
“Humans breed quickly, but take precious time to mature,” the second angel said, “The demons may be outpacing their ability to resupply their ranks.”
“Such is the way of humanity. But this is beneficial to us. When humans become desperate...”
“Their hearts open up to the word of God. This is true. We may find the Lord’s ranks swell with new believers, as the demons overrun the Kasumigaseki Blockade.”
“What is the human saying? There are no atheists in foxholes?”
The angels laughed, metallic and lifeless. The demon watched from the shadows as the angels flew away on cold, sharp wings, vanishing into the dark gloom and leaving an unnatural silence in their wake. They waited for a bit before sidling out of the shadows, hopping down from the crumbled roof and onto the cracked pavement below.
The demon's mind brought up a mental map - ragged at the edges, faded with time and - other things, but they recalled the layout of Tokyo well enough. That was in Chiyoda, near the National Diet Building. Had the humans really been pushed back that far…?
“I knew it was bad,” they murmured, their voice hoarse and soft from disuse, “but not this bad.”
But it wasn’t really all that surprising. With how easy it had been to slip into this world from that gaping pit…
The demon gazed up at the sky as they absorbed this fact. The lack of city lights meant the moon and stars were in clear view, cold, distant glints of light that twinkled down at a battered Tokyo. From Koto to the edge of Shibuya, they had walked, and all they had seen was destruction and demons and angels, remnants of human struggle that said they had fought tooth and nail for every single inch yielded to the demonic ranks encroaching upon their territory.
“Ahhh… you don’t make things easy, do you, Joker?” they murmured.
And with that, the demon once known as Akechi Goro slipped back into the darkness, silently tracing a long path towards the Kasumigasekai Blockade.